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Why didn't anyone predict Bergoglio?

In his media briefing after the conclave that elected Pope Francis, Australian Cardinal George Pell couldnt help tweaking his regular sparring partners in the press by confessing that in my weakness I've taken considerable pleasure in the fact that he (Cardinal Bergoglio) was scarcely on any of the lists of papal contenders.Bergoglio was in fact not much on the medias radar, and some might wonder why it is that reporters never seem to predict the winner of the conclave. After all, if the choice of Ratzinger in 2005 made sense in hindsight, at the time few thought he would be the top choice.So what happened? Did the finely-tuned antennae of the worlds best Vaticanisti go haywire at the crucial moment?Herewith, for what they are worth, are a few thoughts to help explain why Bergoglio didnt emerge as a front-runner ahead of time with two notable exceptions, who I credit below and what that all may say about the way the Church elects the Bishop of Rome:

First, even journalists arent crazy enough to try to predict the unpredictable with any degree of certainty, and Vaticanisti know this better than anyone. They make up lists, hedge them with all sorts of caveats, and then pray that they (well, we, since I play this game at times) wont look too foolish.Perversely, at the same time we are trying to read the tea leaves about why someone could or should be elected, or how they might be elected, there is also an understandable desire to play up the long shots. I mean, who doesnt love that 50-1 Kentucky Derby stunner? In conclave prognostications, such an outcome would make us look a bit foolish since we mainly like to figure out the odds-on fave. But underdogs are such great stories that we cant resist highlighting them; if elected, a dark horse would ensure more coverage even after the election, and beforehand, writing about such unexpected possibilities just makes for a good story. But long shots are long shots for a reason: they rarely win horse races, or conclaves.Temptation is hard to resist, however, and a few brave (foolish?) souls did go out on a limb. I secretly admire their chutzpah even if I wouldnt want to be them now. The estimable Mark Gray at CARA, for example, had an excellent pre-conclave post on the buzzworthy papabile, and at the end he gamely went for it with a trifecta of picks: Cardinal Schnborn, Cardinal OMalley and Cardinal Sandri (hey right country, wrong cardinal). Robert Royal went out on a different limb and went with just one pick, Cardinal Ouellet. Give those men an A for effort. An F for results. Alas.Another reason why it was so hard to predict a frontrunner is that this really was a wide open conclave. The cardinals said so, and the media reported it, and it was true. Thats why the Associated Press and John Allen at NCR and many other outlets were busy profiling up to 20 candidates and everyone was still feeling anxious that one of the other 115 electors would walk out on that balcony! (Untold numbers of laboriously-researched and crafted new pope profiles went into the digital dustbin when Bergoglio walked out on that balcony.)In 2005 the outcome was also pretty unpredictable, and if Cardinal Ratzinger had stalled short of the two-thirds threshold (which he apparently narrowly surpassed) no one excepting the Holy Spirit knows what might have happened. The conclave dynamic in modern times tends to follow a version of the bandwagon effect (as I wrote here) or the movement of the Holy Spirit if you prefer: in either case, the frontrunner can attain an aura of inevitability fairly quickly. But inevitability is not invincibility, and if the frontrunner falters, he generally does not make a comeback and all bets are off; the electors start looking for someone else to rally around.With the cardinals still in shock in 2005 over the death and global mourning for John Paul II, and with almost none of them having any conclave experience (it had been 26 years since the last elections), and with many of the cardinals from outside Italy virtually cut off from the Italian-dominated deliberations before the conclave, it was natural that they rallied around Ratzinger. He was running everything, he seemed like he could run the papacy, too, and everyone knew him. None of them knew anyone else nearly that well. Done deal.This time around, however, there was no pope to bury, no period of mourning to manage, and there were many electors who had been through this before, and many who did not want to see the Roman party run the table on them again. The reform party, as those from outside Italy and outside the Curia were often called, was not terribly well organized but they werent going to be rushed into anything. They wanted a real conclave, which meant genuine deliberations in the General Congregation meetings ahead of the conclave and in the murmuratio around those meetings that lead up to the Sistine voting. Thats what they got (well, the GCs were fairly dreary but worked enough). But it also meant more uncertainty than ever.Last time there was a figure with real weight, three or four times more so than the rest of the cardinals. Were talking about Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of France said on the Sunday before the conclave began, on Tuesday Its not like that now. Therefore, the choice has to be made among one, two, three, four a dozen candidates. Right now we dont know anything, we have to wait for the results of the first ballot.With anything possible, many scenarios emerged. Even the American option!But the Italian media still dominated the horse race coverage (and actively tried to influence the process), simply because they are the home town reporters. The Italians gained another advantage once the American cardinals were shut down from commenting publicly. That left the Italian prelates free to leak to their Italian media contacts, who spun it all out. Hence the intense focus on candidates like Scola of Milan, who apparently generated some votes (and an embarrassing preliminary note of congratulations on his election) but never had much more than press puffery supporting his campaign. That can be significant in getting an all important initial boost, and may even have been a semi-accurate gauge in the days when an Italian was expected to be elected. Not now.This brings me to another point, which is that, pace Cardinal Pell, the cardinal-electors didnt necessarily expect Bergoglio either. Many said publicly, and many others said privately, that they wanted a younger pope with more energy and verve 70 years old was said to be the upper limit, with mid-60s the sweet spot. Thats a decade younger than Bergoglio, who is 76. The cardinals were also reading the newspapers and checking Google, and there are indications they were following the coverage the same way the rest of us were. Picking a pope is hard for the men doing it, as Cardinal Pell knows; its that much harder for the media horde following it second hand.As Cardinal George later told the Chicago Tribune, Bergoglios election surprised him because his name was not out there among the cardinals before the conclave. I think it all came together in an extraordinary fashion," George said. "I wouldn't have expected it to happen either this fast or even the way it developed in terms of the choices available to us. I believe the Holy Spirit makes clear which way we should go. And we went that way very quickly."In short, in the first shakeout votes Bergoglios name emerged and that made him a candidate, a reality, someone the reform camp could finally rally around, which they did, apparently consistently, until he won after 24 hours and five ballots.In retrospect, there were some hints of a Bergoglio candidacy. All the early buzz around appealingly novel papabile like Cardinal Turkson of Ghana or Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines diminished to almost zilch as it became clear the cardinals did not want to do anything too radical, like picking an African or an Asian no Obama moment this time. They wanted something out of the box (a phrase that kept coming up in private conversations) but someone who would be familiar enough to perhaps win over some Roman votes like Bergoglio, who was born of Italian parents, spoke Italian, and came from a very European country in Latin America.Moreover, Bergoglio did enjoy a last minute bump from his intervention at the General Congregation, which drew the attention of some electors at the time. In the conclave his talk became even more important to those on the fence.Now credit where credit is due: the only Vaticanista to pick up on the Bergoglio momentum before the conclave was John Thavis, the longtime CNS Vatican bureau chief and author of a new bestseller about his time in Rome, The Vatican Diaries. In an insightful blog post (one of many he wrote during the conclave) on Monday, March 11, John wrote:

In the last few days, some serious voices have mentioned Cardinal Bergoglio as a contender in the coming conclave. Not simply because he came in second the last time around, but because he impressed cardinals when he took the floor in the pre-conclave meetings that began last week.His words left the impression that even at age 76, Bergoglio had the energy and the inclination to do some house-cleaning in the Roman Curia This conclave has multiple contenders but no real front-runner, and its quite possible that if early voting produces a stall, the College of Cardinals could once again turn to Cardinal Bergoglio as someone who would bring key changes but without an extra-long reign.

On March 13, Johns words proved prophetic as Bergoglio emerged as Pope Francis.Frankly, the papal election appears destined to be a roll of the dice. After all, the Holy Spirit blows where it will. But in a College of Cardinals that is increasingly international and offers little opportunity for the cardinals to get to know each other well and with no open politicking or primaries or even background checks to winnow down the candidates uncertainty is the rule, for the electors and the media and the public.That makes for good drama, to be sure, and its good that the cardinals and the church are presented with so many different and real options for the papacy. That beats papal politics in many past eras. Yet as I have said before, and as was especially clear during this conclave, the bishop of a small Midwestern diocese gets closer vetting than the Bishop of Rome. That is a bit unnerving, and potentially perilous.Good pre-conclave reporting can help, a lot. I cant recall how many cardinals said they were using the Internet to research potential candidates. But it was a chief means for getting intel on the men who could be pope. (Even the Vatican was caught copying from Wikipedia to supply the official bios of the cardinals at a consistory in 2012. Nice that they are using the Internet, which apparently didnt work when they rehabilitated the SSPX bishops in 2009. But still, Id like to think the Holy See could do better than a high schooler on deadline when it comes to researching its own top churchmen.)On the other hand, maybe they should have listened to the one guy who DID pick the pope, even if it was pretty much a shot in the dark: Way back on Feb. 17, just days after Benedict announced he would resign, James Salt of Catholics United was asked on CNN who he thought would or should be elected. His answer? Im looking at Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, he said.Check it out at the 4:25 mark of the clip below, and get that man a cigar!

About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



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David, it seems we journalists are just not too good at predicting the future, whether in papal politics, presidential politics, the world of business or even sports. We do much better in the past tense. I would like to add one footnote to your very interesting post, which is that Bob Keeler wrote a March 8 column in Newsday suggesting that the next pope take the name Francis. Last paragraph said:Finally, wouldn't it be inspiring if the new pope looked at today's church and realized that it is as much in need of restoration as it was in the time of St. Francis of Assisi, who heard Jesus tell him: "Repair my church." The new leader of a billion Catholics could even signal a roll-up-the-sleeves attitude by naming himself Pope Francis I. When the Spirit breathes, you never know.Rest is at

Journalists are incapable of self-criticism. Jorge Bergoglio was the only name to resist Joseph Ratzingers at the 2005 conclave, with 10, 35, 40, 26 votes reportedly going to him in the four ballots. It is said that at a lunch break between ballots he urged his supporters to desist, as he felt unprepared for the job. Due to his age, 76, the journalistic and clerical commentariat had left him on the fringes of their speculation. But the clues were all there. The media are misleading the world again with their almost infantile coverage of the new pontificate. What is striking is that vast amounts of money are spent on "coverage" but like Hollywood the media seem to make a scanty investment in thought.

It seems like Bergoglio's election happened, in part, by process of elimination. This analogy strains under the weight of vast cultural differences but I'll give it a shot anyway: Not unlike Lincoln winning the 1860s Republican presidential nomination. Aside from a handful of delegates (most from Illinois), Lincoln was nobody's first choice. But, partly for reasons beyond his control, he ended up as the preferred second choice for most delegates. When it was clear that no faction had enough votes to elect its first choice, they turned (fairly quickly, if I recall correctly) to Lincoln.

Luke - here is what is interesting about the analogy: Lincoln's team went into that convention with a very aggressive intention to make their man the nominee, and wheeled and dealed massively to make it happen. In fact, a number of his rivals for the nomination ended up in his cabinet as a result of that deal-cutting. It would be interesting to know if that sort of thing happens in papal conclaves.

Good article. I recall reading John Allen's layout on Bergoglio and thinking he'd be very good but also that they'd never elect a Jesuit. More fool me. More and more I appreciate the radicalness of Benedict's move was in stepping down when he did, rather than dying in office. Since he would presumably be even older at that point, the idea of a Cardinal in the mid-'60's age range might have had stronger backing, and the conclave results might have been very different. It was a bold thing Ratzinger did, and he's not usually thought of as bold. His stepping down may have been the beginning of the saving of the church. In that sense maybe Ratzinger is a saint, after all.

Thanks for this, David: very interesting. I was amused by how quickly after the election the commentators on television started saying, "Well, of course, Bergoglio was the runner-up last time," as though they had known that all along. When even the commentators on EWTN, which I had on when the announcement was made, seemed not to recognize the name at first. I'm just reading Thavis's book now (P.S. Tom Reese's review is here!), and I've been appreciating his frankness about how reporters approach the uncertainty of a conclave. Describing the evening that Ratzinger's election was announced, he says: "I had just finished prewriting two stories: one saying Cardinal Ratzinger was the new pope and the other, much shorter, saying Italian Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi had been elected." Another one for the digital dustbin!

Entra in conclave un papa, esce un cardinale! [Go into the conclave a pope, come out a cardinal.]It occurred to me that for much like Republican presidential candidates, you first have to stand in line.

A close relative of mine works for the New York Times. She told me that they had 6 bios of cardinals in the can ready to go at the announcement of the new pope. None of them was Bergoglio.When I watched the announcement on TV, the only word I could make out was Francisco. I jumped out of my seat: "OMG, it's O'Malley.

On the morning of the election I spoke to a researcher from NPR. They were going to do a story on why a new pope changes his name. I told her the history of the custom and then added that it was strange that no pope had chosen the name "Francis" but added that such a name mght set a standard too high (nomen omen) so it was quite a shock when I learned of the new pope and his chosen name while sitting in a detan office getting my teeth cleaned.

The first step in changing the traditional papacy election routine was Benedict's retirement. We have not yet taken the next full step, which would be electing relatively young popes who will retire before they get too old for the job. But is now easier for Francis to retire before he feels too old to cary on.

There was a Pope Francis in a novel by Walter Murphy.

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